2019 marks the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin, a figure well known for his connection to Sheffield and gift of the Ruskin collection of artworks, illustrated books and natural history artefacts to the people of the city. At the centre of Sheffield’s celebrations of this anniversary is the exhibition John Ruskin: Art and Wonder at the Millennium Gallery.
Ruskin tends to usually be thought of in relation to his art criticism, writing on architecture and social theory, being less often recognised for his thinking on science and natural history. This is something that Art and Wonder aims to remedy. Whilst the first room of the exhibition features Ruskin’s familiar recordings of the buildings of Venice, Pisa and other European cities in watercolour, graphite and photography, alongside works by J W Turner, many of the other objects and artefacts in the exhibition are less well known. These include a number of works from the Ruskin Collection that are on display for the first time.
From childhood Ruskin displayed a thirst for observation and collecting, studying everything from floor boards to brick walls. The exhibition includes many of his observational studies in watercolour, pen and ink, which range from everything from studies of dead leaves to those of crocodiles to even a dead duck. There is a sense of the excitement of scientific discovery as enormous feather quills sit alongside Ruskin’s extensive collection of minerals.
At the centre of the exhibition is the spectacle of a wall hung from floor to ceiling with ornithological prints by John James Audubon, which formed the plates for the book Birds of America. Though a hunter himself, Audubon was concerned about the effects of large-scale hunting on the bird population. His book was intended as a record of American birds for the future. Ruskin’s ownership of the image plates is therefore testimony to a preservationist instinct for conservation. As the contemporary artist Tania Kovats writes, ‘I have no doubt [such a] radical thinker...would have been a fierce environmental activist if he was alive today’. The responses of contemporary artists, including Kovats’s Ocean Bowls, Pacific, Indian (2015), a set of bowls that resemble broken egg shells, is just one of the ways in which the exhibition demonstrates the relevance of Ruskin’s thinking for today.